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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 02:20 pm

Only for the summer

. . . but what a colorful splash!

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Tip of the week

If your petunias, impatiens, or other annuals are starting to look straggly and have few flowers, cut them back 6 to 8 inches after flowers have decreased to encourage compact growth and promote a second flowering. Also water and fertilize.

It's never to early to start planning for next year's garden. Last week, while snapping photos of the flower beds on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, I noted several annual flowers that I now plan to include in my garden next year: Chief Red cockscomb, Ring of Fire sunflowers, and Coral Nymph salvia.

Annuals add a splash of color in the garden or in containers. They are generally inexpensive--especially if you start them from seeds--and they produce an abundance of flowers. When choosing annuals, pay attention to the light conditions of your garden and any color scheme you may have in mind. The one drawback is that they need to be planted each year.

By definition an annual is a plant that completes its lifecycle in one season, but many of the "annual" flowers we grow in central Illinois are actually perennials that cannot survive our winters. Most annuals are planted in the spring and are killed by the fall's frost. Weeding, watering, and fertilizing will keep most insect and disease problems at bay. Make sure you plant annuals so the mature plants will not be overcrowded--most diseases can be avoided by not overcrowding.

Here's a list of a few noteworthy annuals that can be viewed on the Illinois State Fairgrounds:

• Ageratum or Flossflower (Ageratum houstonianum). Clusters of small blue or white flowers top these 4- to 12-inch-tall plants. Ageratums perform best in a sunny garden and look great along a garden border. Plants will perform better and look more attractive by removing faded flowers. Two cultivars that can be viewed at the fairgrounds include 'Blue Horizon' and 'White Bouquet.'

• Cockscomb (Celosia cristata). Brightly colored--red, orange, yellow, gold, or pink--flowers top the 1- to 2 1/2-foot-tall plants. These heat-tolerant plants grow best in full to partial sun. Cockscombs not only add color to the garden but can be preserved and used in dried flower arrangements. Cultivars on the fairgrounds include 'Chief Fire,' 'New Look,' and 'Apricot Brandy.'

• Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata). White, rose, red, scarlet, or lime-green fragrant tubular-shaped flowers appear on branched stems. The large and sticky leaves resemble commercial tobacco. Two taller fragrant cultivars on the fairgrounds are 'Heaven Scent Mix' and 'Grand ol' White.'

• Salvia (Salvia splendens and Salvia farinacea). These spiked flowers come in red, white, purple, coral, or blue. They perform best in full to partial sun. A few of the more popular cultivars on the fairgrounds are 'Coral Nymph,' 'Snow Nymph,' 'Victoria Blue,' and 'Lady in Red.'

• Verbena (Verbena bonariensis). Violet flowers top this 3-foot-tall plant, adding vertical interest to containers as well as flower gardens. Butterflies are attracted to them, but deer tend to stay away.

Besides bringing your sunscreen to the fairgrounds, come with a pen, paper, and camera to make notes of the flowers and combinations you like. For more information on planting, care, and a list of common annual flowers, visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Gardening with Annuals" page on-line at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/annuals.

Flowers at the fair

As you make your way through all the tents and concession stands on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, don't miss the beautiful flowers. Bright red cockscombs, orange and yellow marigolds, Purple Ruffles basil, and white petunias are only four of the 150 different flowers scattered throughout the grounds. Flower beds are tucked around every corner--226 in all. New this year are some particularly artful displays: tipped-over wheelbarrows and whisky barrels spilling over with colorful flowers.

Look up high and see one of the 175 hanging baskets, some of which contain trailing pink and purple petunias and chartreuse colored sweet potato vines. Marching along the avenues are 65 concrete planters, some bursting with tall orange cannas and cascading black sweet potato vines.

Twelve inmates from the Logan Correctional Center care for the beautiful flowers. Corrections officer Jerry Morgan implemented the designs and oversees the day-to-day maintenance of the massive plantings. The 150,000 flowers were started from seeds last March.

If you need help identifying a flower on the fairgrounds, talk to a master gardener. Master gardeners of the University of Illinois Sangamon-Menard Unit will be in their demonstration gardens from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day during the fair to field all gardening questions. The demonstration gardens are located in front of the Building #30--the Jr. Activities building--along 8th Street.

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